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Should we call it a harmonica or a mouth organ?

Many players (the late Larry Adler, for one) have suggested that that "harmonica" is less correct than "mouth organ". I'm not sure that this is the case.

For a start, the term "mouth organ" can refer to many instruments - from the Asian sheng, sho, khaen, sompoton, etc., to the Western harmonicas, blow accordions, melodicas and similar instruments. All of these instruments can be considered small reed organs that are blown by mouth. (For more about thse instruments, please see my Brief History of Mouth Blown Free Reed Instruments.)

Also, the word "harmonica" (and related words such as "harmonika", "armonica", "harmonicon", "garmonika", etc.) has been applied to several different things. It features in the titles of several tunebooks, as well as collections of writings about music. There was also a respected British music journal from the 1800s titled "The Harmonicon".

Organologists (those who study musical instruments) have long used the words harmonica or harmonicon as generic terms for instruments which are basically a row of tuned idiophones*, or other sound sources that are capable of producing harmonies (ie, able to sound more than one note at a time). Examples would be the rock harmonicons found in some cultures (basically a row of rocks which give different pitches when struck - see here), the meteorologic harmonica or armonico-meteorologiche (a giant aeolian harp built by Cesare Gattoni in the late 18th century to forecast the weather - see here) the chemical harmonica or harmonica thermique (AKA the flame organ, it used fire to generate musical tones - see here), various panpipe-like instruments, the aeol-harmonica and organo-harmonica (pre-cursors of the harmonium), the glass harmonica or armonica (a row of tuned glasses, or glass disks - see here), the bell harmonica or bellarmonic (similar to the glass harmonica but using a row of tuned metal bowls), the panharmonicon (a mechanical instrument invented by Johann Nepomuk Mältzel), the nail harmonica, stiftharmonika or nagelharmonika (a row of metal tines mounted on a wooden soundboard that are sounded with a violin bow, also known as the nail fiddle, nail violin, etc. - see here - a later development of the nail harmonica involved sympathetic strings added to the soundboard, with this instrument being called the violono-harmonika), the Pandean harmonica (an old term for the panpipes), the melkharmonica or Stockspiel (a friction idiophone played by stroking a set wood or metal bars with a rosined glove) and the more common marimbas, glockenspiels, etc. This usage was applied to the very first European free reed instruments, which were essentially rows of pitch pipes strung together, eventually turning into the mouth harmonica (mundharmonika) and the hand harmonica (handharmonika). In many European countries today the term "harmonika" is often more likely to mean an accordion than a mouth organ.

The earliest Western mouth organs were often called harmonicons (Helmholtz in his classic work "On The Sensations of Tone", 1877, mentions "cheap mouth harmonicons", as well as using the term "harmonicon" to denote xylophone-like instruments of wood, metal and glass). Other early Western free reed instruments that used similar names were Kirsnik's Harmonika, Svetchina's Harmonika, Malzel's Panharmonica, Hackel's Physharmonica and the Bibelharmonika. All of these were keyed reed organs, rather than mouth-blown instruments. Even if you use the term "mundharmonika", it is possible that some might misinterpret what you mean, as this name has also been used in parts of German-speaking Europe to describe the Jew's harp. Related terms such as harmoniphon, harmonicor, harmoniton and harmonium have also been applied to various free reed instruments

So... both "mouth organ" and "harmonica" are equally correct - or incorrect!


* "Idiophone" is one of the main categories in the Hornsbostel/Sachs system of musical instrument classification. It denotes an instrument whose sound is produed by the material from which the instrument is constructed - having no strings, membranes (such as a drum head) or a column of air set into motion by blowing. The sound is produced either by striking it (eg bell), plucking it (eg kalimba), bowing it (eg musical saw), shaking it (eg rattle) or scraping it (eg guiro), etc.


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